Civil rights activist, US Rep. John Lewis dies at 80

Civil rights activist and longtime Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has died.


Civil rights activist and longtime Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia has died.

The 80-year-old was a key figure in the civil rights movement and in his 17th term as a member of Congress.

Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, a group led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that had the greatest impact on the movement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Lewis’ passing late Friday night, calling him “one of the greatest heroes of American history.”

“All of us were humbled to call Congressman Lewis a colleague, and are heartbroken by his passing,” Pelosi said. “May his memory be an inspiration that moves us all to, in the face of injustice, make ‘good trouble, necessary trouble.’”

In December, Lewis was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer following a routine medical visit.

"I have been in some kind of fight — for freedom, equality, basic human rights — for nearly my entire life. I have never faced a fight quite like the one I have now," he said at the time.

“As I painfully mourn the loss of my mentor, colleague, dear friend, and American legend, Congressman John Robert Lewis, I know my words will never be able to do justice to someone of such monumental significance,” said U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, of Louisiana.

“John is an American hero who helped lead a movement and risked his life for our most fundamental rights; he bears scars that attest to his indefatigable spirit and persistence,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said after Lewis announced his cancer diagnosis.

Lewis joined King and four other civil rights leaders in organizing the 1963 March on Washington. He spoke to the vast crowd just before King delivered his epochal “I Have a Dream” speech.

In 1965, Lewis and his peers organized the voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The first march, which took place on March 7 and became known as "Bloody Sunday," went off without a hitch until the 600-some protesters reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma, where white state troopers viciously attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas.

Video: Lewis, who participated in the Bloody Sunday march, speaks in Selma during the 50th Anniversary Bridge Crossing Jubilee

Lewis' skull was fractured and he thought he was going to die on that bridge.

The marches were part of a movement that helped to secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a watershed piece of federal legislation that protects against racial discrimination in voting.

Lewis was born on Feb. 21, 1940, outside the town of Troy, in Pike County, Alabama. He grew up on his family’s farm and attended segregated public schools.

As a boy, he wanted to be a minister, and practiced his oratory on the family chickens. Denied a library card because of the color of his skin, he became an avid reader, and could cite obscure historical dates and details even in his later years. He was a teenager when he first heard King preaching on the radio. They met when Lewis was seeking support to become the first Black student at Alabama’s segregated Troy State University.

He ultimately attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. He began organizing sit-in demonstrations at whites-only lunch counters and volunteering as a Freedom Rider, enduring beatings and arrests while traveling around the South to challenge segregation.

He won his seat in Congress in 1986 and spent much of his career in the minority. After Democrats won control of the House in 2006, Lewis became his party’s senior deputy whip, a behind-the-scenes leadership post in which he helped keep the party unified.

In an early setback for Barack Obama’s 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Lewis endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for the nomination. Lewis switched when it became clear Obama had overwhelming Black support. Obama later honored Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and they marched hand in hand in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack.

Lewis said he’d been arrested 40 times in the 1960s, five more as a congressman.

Lewis’ wife of four decades, Lillian Miles, died in 2012. They had one son, John Miles Lewis.

The Associated Press and CNN contributed to this report.